I hate wind. I always have, ever since I was small, growing up on a bluff in New Zealand. They say it can drive humans mad. In certain gusty regions of Switzerland, courts accept wind as a mitigating circumstance for crime. And in other parts of the world, the suicide rate skyrockets along with the wind factor. The theory is that relentless wind drives all joy from the human soul.
And so there I was in the Gobi Desert, one of the world's windiest places, suddenly realizing that a plan would be needed in order for me to return home with my sanity. And also realizing why people use the Gobi as a metaphor for the last resort, verge-of-the-world sort of place. You'll notice that they usually refer either to Timbuktu, which implies sort of out-there-exotica, or to the Gobi. The Gobi means out-there-living-hell.
There's one rule in places like this: Never, ever face upwind. I learned this when I stepped off the plane in Dalzanagad, center of Nowhere, and guilelessly smiled at the man greeting us. My mouth ballooned with airborne grit, my eyeballs felt as if fire ants had nested on them and my hair has never been quite the same since.
Several months before, I'd had a call from Land Rover inviting me to participate in the first (recorded) Mongolian south-to-north expedition from the southeastern Gobi, through the heartland steppes and up to Lake Hovsgol on the Siberian border. The trip was to be made in Land Rover's sports utility vehicle, the Discovery. This is an annual event for Rover. They air-lift vehicles to the edges of the earth just for the hell of it, and then tell people like me (whose off-roading history peaks at a U-turn across a freeway divider) to hop behind the wheel and drive from point A to point Z.
This Mongolian expedition would cover 1,700 miles in four days. There would be no paved roads, in fact few roads at all. We would go from wind-flogged desert and gravel plains to hummocked grasslands and then, finally, to ice-and-snow-slicked mountains. The hours would be long and grueling, with nights spent in tents or, if we were lucky, in gers, the domed felt tents of the nomads.
As soon as I'd signed on, boxes began arriving on my doorstep. At first there was the reading material: tips on desert survival, dissertations on paleontology, ecological perspectives, history-at-a-glance, topo maps, mechanical specs, Mongolian phrase books, pointers on cultural seemliness, pens and propagandistic corporate stickers and pins to distribute to nomads. Then came the apparel. The finest quality, all in safari khaki, all with the Land Rover logo discreetly affixed. Extreme-wear jackets, gale-proof woolen sweaters, hefty hiking boots, safari shirts -- and a note suggesting that we supplement this wardrobe with thick socks, ear-muff hats, fleece pants and a pair of snorkeling goggles.
You would think this last item on the list would have aroused the suspicion of any seasoned adventurer. Instead I ignored it, reasoning, quite cleverly I thought, that Mongolia was one of the most land-locked countries on earth and any lakes would be frozen for a good six months of the year. Land Rover may have a bunch of hardy sorts coming on this trip, but I, for one, was not about to be exploring subaquatic Mongolia.
And so, sans goggles, I arrived in Ulan Bator, slept off the brutal journey, had a meet-the-team dinner and then flew to the Gobi, where the vehicles awaited. There were two Discoverys, two Uazs (Russian jeeps) and a mammoth Gaz, a Russian troop transport vehicle that was our supply truck. Our party included 14 people: seven Mongolian men, three Rover die-hards and four journalists -- all female.
We were met by Chimed, a rotund Mongolian biologist who was to be our dinosaur specialist, navigator, cook and touring bon vivant. His English was sketchy but unfailingly exuberant. "Velcome to da Gooobi," he said, his scarlet cheeks smothering his eyes in a huge, fleshy grin. It was freezing out, but Chimed wore a pair of Bermuda shorts with geckos crawling up them and a T-shirt that stopped slightly shy of a hirsute navel.
"Ah, it a buootiful day in Gooobi," he yelled over the wind, flinging bare arms skyward. "Zo purrfuct. Ve drive and ve dig dinosaur bones, yiss?" Naturally, I paused to reflect on a bad day in the Gobi.
We threw ourselves into the vehicles to escape the piercing cold and
slicing sand. The plan was that we journalists would rotate driving the
two Discoverys, supervised by an off-roading authority, in case, I
assumed, we tried something vehicularly misguided.
"Oh dear," sighed Edna Fernandes, a British journalist from Reuters in London,
"there's a weenie problem. You see, well, I can't drive really. Never have,
you know. Tried it once, got 50 meters and ended up in a ditch. It may not
be a good idea to put me behind the wheel. In fact," she added brightly,
"this whole experience is quite new for me. I've never actually camped
Nobody spoke for a full minute. We could only stare, horrified. "Well,"
someone finally offered weakly, "at least there's not much for you to smash
into out here."
That first afternoon, Chimed led the convoy to the Flaming Cliffs, the spot
made famous by Roy Chapman in 1922 when he unearthed a nest of dinosaur
eggs, tossing the world of paleontology on its ear regarding the
procreative habits of dinosaurs. We hiked into an arid valley ringed by
crimson cliffs, spiking skyward like a dripping Gaudi cathedral. It was
totally calm, the malevolent wind being incapable of negotiating such sharp
corners. "Just tink," said Chimed, gently prodding at the jawbone of an amazingly
intact ceratopsia, "thixty-five milliun yers ago dis creatcha lived here
What Chimed meant, I'm sure, was that 65 million years ago dinosaurs
strolled about in a lush green oasis with plenty of water to drink and
Utopia had sure gone to pot since then.
As we hiked out of the cliffs, an ugly thunderhead raced toward us. Rain,
I thought, damn. But no, it wasn't rain. It was a funnel of whirling,
whistling, gale-driven sand that, when it struck with the force of Thor's
hammer, made seeing painful and breathing virtually impossible.
Magnanimously, I turned to look for Edna to ensure she was coping. Through
a veil of desert I could see her rummaging in her jacket, producing
something that looked like -- no, could those be? -- snorkeling goggles! Grinning
(downwind), she snapped them on and sauntered back to the car, leaving me
to grope my way nakedly, blindly, doubled over. I looked up to see an
entire team of goggle-wearing desert survivors, all of whom had obviously
read the information in those damned boxes.
By sunset, we had reached our first campsite -- the ruins of the Ongiin Hiid
monastery. The wind had picked up in fury, and a sheltered site did not
exist. Edna, the camping virgin and my tentmate, looked on in disbelief.
"We're not actually going to sleep here, are we?"
"Apparently," I said, and then, trying to sound like the wilderness pundit
I wanted her to think of me as: "Never fear. Desert winds typically die
With enormous difficulty we set up the whipping tent. Then Edna, cheered at
my promise of a wind-free night, produced her tape of "Saturday Night Fever"
and slipped it into the Discovery's tape deck. Chimed, geckos akimbo,
unscrewed what was to be the first of many bottles of "excerent Mongolian
wodka" and we toasted and drank, toasted and drank and then toasted and drank some more ... Quite suddenly, "Staying Alive" seemed the most danceable tune in human history.
Mongolia is the world's third emptiest spot (beaten only by Greenland and
the Western Sahara), with an average of 1.4 people per square mile.
However, it's a mystical certainty that you can pull up anywhere in this
country, no sign of human life for miles, and 10 minutes later a crowd
will be gathered to observe your every move. Where they come from is one of
those inscrutable desert riddles. Ask a Mongolian and they will smile,
swipe at the barren landscape and say, "Outa dere."
When Barry Gibb's falsetto shattered the desert night, the empty ruins of
Ongiin Hiid began to ooze life. People crept over the ridges, awed by the
sight of foreigners, dressed identically in olive-drab, gyrating and
mincing under their domed sky. A polite race, they kept a hand clapped over
their mouths to muffle their laughter. Eventually, we succeeded in getting
the teenagers to join us, and soon they were grinding their hips and
pointing their index fingers skyward as if they'd lived in Brooklyn all
At midnight, we crawled into our sleeping bags with the wind savaging the
tent. Edna looked at me with sorry contempt, pulled her hat over her eyes
and tied the bag over her head. It was cold. Gobi cold. Outside, I heard
the fly-pegs snap out of the ground one by one. The irony is that while
Edna snored, I spent half the night re-staking and tying, until I finally
gave up and lay there with the tent-side mashed into my face.
Before breakfast, our disco-ettes were waiting for us, keen for more
dancing lessons. How does one explain that only in the dead of night, under
the influence of a mind-altering substance, is it permissible to disco in
They brought us small gifts of prayer flags and cheese and we gave them
pins and stickers. They were such kind people, with warm, glimmering eyes,
round cheeks rubbed red by the wind, and bodies unseen for all the layers
of clothing keeping out the bitter cold. In fact, they were so gentle that
it was difficult to imagine them as the descendants of the ferocious,
take-no-prisoners Genghis Khan. Khan's hordes struck terror into the hearts
of half the known world. His troops thundered across Asia in a mad rampage
of conquest and his grandchildren vanquished empires from Russia to Hungary
on their stumpy-legged ponies. Yet these baby-cuddling modern Mongols
seemed a far cry from the henchmen who smote women and children from
When I voiced this doubt, Jalsa Urubshurow laughed loudly. Jalsa was the
Mongolian-American owner of Nomadic Expeditions, the U.S.
tour company that provided the logistics for the expedition.
"I'll tell you a story," he said. "When I was here last month, we stopped to
take a break on the steppes. Off in the distance we could see a man on horseback
racing toward us. Only, it wasn't a man, it was a small child, galloping at full
speed, without stirrups. What's more, when he came closer, I could see he had
only one hand on the reins and was eating an apple with the other.
When he pulled up, he told me he was 5, and he wanted to go get his
3-year-old brother to show us how he could ride too. He galloped off,
returning with a toddler on another horse. As we talked, the younger kid's
horse put its head down to feed and the boy flew off, hitting the ground
square on his head.
"The kid was on the ground screaming in pain. All I could think of was
hospitals and CT-scans, but a Mongolian horseman who'd appeared on the
scene intervened. He picked him up, slapped him hard across the face three
times and stuck him back in the saddle. The boy stopped crying and was led
off at a gallop. They still breed 'em tough out here."
With Lisa Barrow at the wheel, we headed north with the wind. Lisa is an American
television motorshow reporter who'd winched a Discovery through the jungle
swamps of Belize in 120-degree heat the year before, so this trip was a piece
of cake for her. "Love it," she said with signature good nature. "I mean, who
wouldn't rather be in the Gobi than sitting at a desk in Baltimore?"
She was right. So long as I didn't have to leave the vehicle, she was right.
By mid-afternoon the wind still raged and group morale had slumped because
we had not been fed in at least six hours. There was no shelter and our
picnic plans had gone to hell. "Yu Amirikins," Chimed said, shaking his
amply-fed jowls. "Yorr stomak niver sleep."
I scowled at him, my cold fingers desperately trying to unwrap some
uninviting Amirikin food-substitute.
Finally Chimed halted the entire convoy outside a lonely ger, kicked aside
the savage dogs and stumbled in. Seconds passed and then the entire nomadic
family swarmed out, beckoning us inside. Identi-kit journalists fell out of
Discoverys, four tightly-cinched khaki bodies running toward the warmth
of the ger.
We commandeered the family's living room for our picnic, cooking soup over
their wood stove and lounging on their beds and chairs while they sat on
the floor nodding cheerfully at us. I attempted to tell Chimed that if you
tried this in the States, you'd depart either with buckshot in your butt or
in handcuffs. He giggled, thinking I was kidding.
With a flourish, the family matriarch produced a communal hospitality bowl
containing a milky liquid with clots floating in it. It was Mongolian chai,
to which is added yak or mare's milk, butter, salt, hard flakes of weak tea
and, in times of great plenitude, curdled yak yogurt. "Mmm, yum," we
murmured in turn, smacking our lips and quickly passing it on. It was
returned to our hostess a fraction less full than when it began the round.
She stared at the bowl, unsure whether to be insulted or pleased that we
hadn't scarfed her meager supplies.
At dusk we pulled into Kharakorum, the site of Genghis Khan's capital city
(before his grandson Kublai got the idea that maybe the world had more to
offer than the Gobi and moved the capital to Beijing). At the time of
Genghis, the streets were said to be lined with trees made of solid silver,
and fountains that spewed milk and honey. No traces of opulence remain,
although the Erdene Zuu monastery, which was decimated during the communist
purges, still has ghostly remnants of its prior magnificence.
In 1939, under the bloody influence of Josef Stalin, Mongolia's ruling Communist
Party ransacked most of the country's Buddhist monasteries and either
murdered thousands of monks or shipped them off to Siberia (although why
they thought Siberia could possibly be worse than the Gobi stumps me).
Today the religion is legal once again, and elderly Mongolians are
unearthing Buddhist relics they buried in the ground over 70 years
ago. Monks have returned to Erdene Zuu and several of the former 100
buildings have been rebuilt.
We spent the night in Kharakorum in a sort of ger motel. There were real
beds with crisp white sheets and each ger had a central wood stove.
"Really," said Edna, resplendent after a hot shower and access to a genuine
toilet, "what sort of a person willingly sleeps on the ground?"
The next morning I took the wheel and we headed north, leaving behind the
Godforsaken Gobi and its infernal wind. It was an epiphany. The terrain
changed from featureless desert to celadon grass steppes rolling into
purple-tinted mountains. The breeze was gentle and warm, and long-maned
horses galloped in the distance. Mongolia was, after all, a beautiful
place. I removed my gloves, flexed my fingers and rolled down the window to
let the sunshine in. We camped that night in a spot so bucolic, so
tranquil, it could have been Wyoming.
It is without any trace of obligation that I mention what impressive
vehicles the Discoverys were. The people unlucky enough to be riding in
the Uazs, the Russian army's equivalent to the Hummer, served as a
control group. Uazs are tin cans emblematic of the Cold War, proudly
assembled with the fewest possible parts, no regard for human anatomy and
little thought to keeping out the elements. Infuriatingly, they went
everywhere the Discoverys did, although the occupants emerged wind-torn,
dust-caked, deaf and temporarily lacking any sensation in their
extremities. The Discoverys cruised over boulders, through waist-deep
rivers and knee-deep ditches and traversed sheer cliffsides. We
journalists lounged in climate-controlled comfort, on leather seats
with orthopedic adjustments and shocks that took the beating on our
behalf. We should have felt guilty, I suppose. But we didn't. We felt
We reached Lake Hovsgol at sunset on our last day of driving. Hovsgol is
very close to Lake Baikal in Siberia and is said to have the purest fresh
water in the world. The lake was as lovely as any I have ever seen,
surrounded by thick taiga forest, snow-frosted peaks and flower-studded
meadows. A ger camp stood in a clearing, blue smoke streaming into the
falling night. The lake was beginning to break up after a solidly-frozen
five months. Watery yawns broke between jigsaw chunks of ice-blue on the
edges, pearly in the middle. The entire lake sang softly in a breathy,
tinkling voice. Mongolians say they can hear the voices of their ancestors
in these ice-songs.
We were at the end of our road trip, and the following morning the prime
minister's helicopter arrived to fly us back to Ulan Bator. That's the sort
of country Mongolia is. The prime minister isn't going anywhere today, so
hey, use his wings.
That evening, at the tail end of a rowdy farewell dinner, Jalsa stood,
raised his umpteenth shot of Chingiss vodka and offered up an ancient
Mongolian toast. For those who suffer the affliction of wanderlust, it may
well be useful to memorize this and consider it absolution: "It is better to have
seen a place once than to have heard of it a thousand times."
Even the Gobi.